(Last Updated: April 2018)
To say Venice is a temptress would be an understatement. I wrote the majority of this post in 2016 after returning from a week in the lagoon for the first time, and I’ve now been back over a dozen times. I’ve never been somewhere so ravishing, so unique, or so god damned confusing in my entire life.
In this guide you’ll find the basics (how to get around, gondola etiquette) and the not so basics (how to get inside Casanova's prison cell… and where you can find lots of cats).
I'm happy to report that hot gondoliers are actually a thing. Meet Sebastiano, you're welcome.
I try to update this post every so often to reflect any changes or new tips I come across during each journey back to my favourite place in the world. It is my hope that this guide will help you to understand and appreciate La Serenissima a bit more than the average tourist. I want to help you explore, to teach you something new, and to show you how you can contribute to the survival of this most wondrous city.
An Introduction to Venice:
If you have time before your trip, I highly recommend (demand) learning a bit more about the history of Venice and Venetian culture. Venice is not ‘Italian’ by nature, and there is so much to her story that you’ll benefit greatly by knowing. Even just a brief read over the Wikipedia page for Venice would be better than nothing and would enhance your Venetian experience, but I love the following:
Venice by Jan Morris – Said to be ‘the best book about Venice ever written’. I haven’t read every book about Venice ever written, but this sure is a damned good book so I’m not going to argue. It’s comprehensive but not too lengthy, and a total pleasure to read.
Francesco’s Venice – A four part BBC television series that covers the history of Venice from its settlement to the present day. The series is hosted by Francesco da Mosto, who comes from one of Venice’s oldest and most prominent families. Francesco’s love for his city will rub off on you almost instantly. Expect ancient tales, laughter, and a lot of cigarettes.
Dream of Venice by JoAnn Locktov and Charles Christopher – I bought this beautiful, beautiful book after my second trip to Venice, and I open it back up for inspiration all of the time. The photographs, quotes, and poems perfectly capture the magical, mysterious, and downright sexy side of Venice that so many sadly miss out on. She's also recently published two more books in the 'Dream of Venice' series - one on Venetian architecture and one that has gorgeous black and white photos of the city.
All of these can be picked up on Amazon.
“But Venice smells!”
I’m still wondering where this rumour comes from. Perhaps decades ago, before more modernised plumbing came in, there may have been a bit of a stench on sweltering days? Whatever the case, it’s gone now. Take it from me (someone who has been in Venice during a record heatwave in August) there’s only two unpleasant whiffs you’ll ever get in this city:
* The last hour or so of the Rialto Market.
* The sweaty tourists you’ll be wedged between on the vaporetto.
“Venice is overcrowded and unbearable.”
The Rialto Bridge, St. Mark’s Square, and Santa Lucia train station are indeed overcrowded, sometimes to a maddening degree. The rest of Venice, however, can be a paradise of tranquility if you allow yourself to wander. There’s truly nothing better than getting lost in the residential areas of the island, and I’ve wandered for hours some days without seeing a single person. I’ve played soccer in squares with local children, and enjoyed gelato on a little bridge with a stray cat on my lap. I think it goes without saying that all of these experiences are vastly superior to being elbowed and shoved in Piazza San Marco while flocks of pigeons desperately try to land/shit on you. Of course you’ll want to see the major sights, but please allow yourself time to wander… you won’t regret it.
“Venice is great for a day trip!”
No. No. Dear God no. Tourists on day trips are part of what’s driving Venice to her grave. I don’t like to make sweeping generalisations, but I’m going to go ahead and make one anyway because this is my blog and I do what I want. The vast majority of tourists that hop off cruise ships and descend upon Venice are the tourist form of cockroaches. With just a few hours to explore Venice, many of them scurry straight to St Mark’s Square to take a few photos and perhaps buy a cheap postcard or (God forgive me for the following words) a selfie stick. They crowd onto the boats, shoving everyone out of the way while they unfold their giant, useless maps directly into your face. They devour a (likely frozen, gross, and overpriced) slice of pizza from some cheap cafe catering to people exactly like them. And then, when their few hours are over, they leave Venice with no further knowledge of it… having contributed nothing to the city other than immense irritation to everyone around them and probably a fair amount of litter.
I once saw a man and his family literally knock over an elderly Venetian lady on the vaporetto in order to get a better view of the Grand Canal. As various vegetables from her shopping bag spilled off the boat and into the water, I thought seriously about brutally pummelling them all with their atrocious fanny packs. Instead, I helped her up while they (loudly) discussed amongst each other plans for their… get ready… four hours in Venice. Don’t be that guy. Give Venice the time she deserves.
“Venice is home to the worst food in Italy.”
So wrong. So, so wrong. Scroll down to the end of this post and click on the links to read some of my posts about the downright incredible meals you can have in Venice. I’ve got some great tips on where to find the best booze too… hello €1 glasses of prosecco!
For anyone who thinks Venice is home to bad food, this is a melt-in-your-mouth fried Venetian meatball (polpette). Yep, feel free to apologise.
If you’ve already bought a map for your trip, throw it away. Burn it even. The first thing you need to know about your time in Venice is that you’re going to get lost. I mean it. Not a little bit lost, very lost. So lost. Lost all the time. Lost. You’re lost. Do you understand me? Good. I have a seriously on-point sense of direction and I thought, despite everyone telling me I’d get lost in Venice, that I’d be fine. I was wrong. Venice is a city of winding streets, canals, dead ends, ridiculously tiny alleyways, bridges, more dead ends, more canals, and more tiny alleyways. Google maps can help to an extent, but honestly I wouldn’t even bother. Just enjoy the beauty of being lost.
Something which may help you understand Venice is knowing that the island is ‘divided’ into six sestieri (essentially districts), plus the nearby island of Guidecca which is sometimes considered the seventh sestiere. Insert handy map:
“How positively wonderful and logical” you might be thinking. You are wrong.
This is where the confusion of the century hits. Say there’s a street called Calle Alba. Great. Or maybe not so great… because there can be a Calle Alba in each and every district, so you’ve got to sort out which one it’s in. Furthermore, the numbering on any given Venetian street is not always in proper numerical order. Instead, the numbers can be in the order which they were built… so you could have 3 next to 7853 followed by 82. Fantastic.
Basically, good luck, and make sure you’ve got comfortable shoes on.
A note on addresses: Addresses in Venice aren’t listed in the American or British ‘Number, Street’ format. Instead, most addresses look like San Polo, 4265… which is the sestiere (San Polo) followed by the number (4265). If you get heinously lost, pop into any restaurant or hotel you see, they should be able to point you vaguely in the right direction.
* Vaporetto: The vaporetto is the water bus service in Venice. It goes up and down the Grand Canal and around the island itself, stopping at major points. If you’re going to use this quite a bit, I’d recommend buying a 24/48/72 hour pass as they are a lot more cost effective than paying the €7 fare for each one-way journey. DO NOT FORGET to validate your ticket before each journey, or you could be subject to a hefty fine. There are little validation card readers before you board at each stop. Just hold your ticket against the reader and wait for it to beep and show a green light. Good to go.
* Traghetto: If you’re trying to nip across the grand canal, please bear in mind that there are only four bridges in all of Venice that do this. That’s where the traghetto service comes in handy.. traghetti boats are the bigger, less formal sibling to gondolas. Locals stand up in the (slightly rocky) boats during the crossing, but if you’re feeling wimpy it’s not entirely frowned upon to sit down. I'll judge you though.
* Water taxi: Readily available, prohibitively expensive.
* Gondola: I’ll tell you more about gondolas and how to get the most out of your ride later in this post.
Side note: Do not even THINK of hiring one of these paddle board or water bike atrocities that have been popping up lately. If you are not a Venetian, you are not knowledgable enough to be controlling anything (with or without a motor) in any Venetian canal. End of. Everyone will hate you and laugh at you, you'll hold up traffic, endanger people, and very likely end up injured or in the water... hopefully both.
A note on masks:
Support this beautiful, historic Venetian craft by purchasing a handmade, one of a kind mask rather than a plastic piece of absolute shit from a souvenir stall. Read more on my blog post for tips on the best places to get the real deal.
From what I have gathered, there are three kinds of shops in Venice.
1) Horrific, garish, deplorable tourist shops. (Want a selfie stick or literally the dumbest postcard/magnet/shot glass you’ve ever seen? Perfect!)
2) Ferociously expensive designer shops. (Did you forget your Chanel bag at home? Whoops! No worries, you can buy a new one!)
3) Incredible local artisan shops. (Please avoid the two above and shop here)
I promise I won’t judge you for picking up a magnet if that’s really your thing, but if you’re looking to buy something truly beautiful and hand-crafted, you’re on the right island. Venice has so many incredible artisans, and a rich history of producing wonderful and unique wares.
For the best independent shops in Venice, always consult contributing back to the islands . There's a list of recommended places on their website, and you can even apply for a 'Friends of Venezia Autentica' card which gets you 10% off at all of shops. For the best independent shops in Venice, always consult Venezia Autentica. The website and initiative is run by Sebastian and Valeria, a brilliant young couple in Venice who saw local artisans going out of business and decided to do something about it. They hand-pick amazing shops run by locals, so you know you're getting quality items and contributing back to the economy. There's a list of recommended places on their website, and you can even apply for a 'Friends of Venezia Autentica' card which gets you 10% off at all of shops. Win, win.
Ride a gondola:
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way. I was on the fence before my trip about whether or not I wanted to shell out for a gondola ride. The rates are set by the city, non-negotiable, and you’ll be waving arrivederci to €80 for a 40 minute trip, with prices rising after dusk. It may seem like highway robbery, but a few minutes of research into how much a gondola costs to produce, maintain and (more importantly) how rigorous the training is to become a gondolier, and you’ll quickly realise why it costs a pretty penny. Plus, you’re in Venice for Christ’s sake…. when are you ever going to get a chance to go on a gondola again?
Sidenote: Do not, even for a moment, think of mentioning those motorised piles of shame and blasphemy that are currently gliding about The Venetian in Las Vegas.
The key to getting the most out of your gondola ride is to know two things:
1) What do you want to get out of your gondola ride? Do you want a gondolier who will tell you all of the stories of the palazzos and the people who lived in them? Do you want someone who speaks great English, or do you want to practice your Italian? Do you want a purely romantic ride, perhaps with the gondolier singing you and your wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend/high class escort a tune?
2) What do you want to see on your journey? Have you dreamt about going down the Grand Canal on a gondola? Is there a certain bridge or sight you want to see by boat? Or would you rather see some of the picturesque tiny back canals in residential areas?
Once you can answer those two questions, you can begin your search for the perfect gondolier. There are a fair few gondoliers in Venice, to say the least, so don’t feel bad about saying no to the first gondolier who offers you a ride (some of them can be a bit, ahem... aggressive with their offerings). Ask questions, get a feel for personalities, and remember that no two gondola rides are the same. If you want someone chatty, ask them if they’d be happy to tell you about some of the city’s history on your ride. If you want a serenade, ask before you get on if your gondolier does this (some don’t, and likewise some shouldn’t). And if you want a ride that’s longer than the standard 40 minutes, this is the time to ask about it and negotiate a price. I wandered around loads of the little canals before I found my gondolier, Sebastiano, who was quite young (and strapping) for a gondolier. I told him I wanted to know a bit more about some of the now vacant palazzos, but that I didn’t want to spend too much of my ride in Grand Canal traffic and preferred to see something different.
We set off from a small canal, making our way around some gorgeous residential areas. Sebastiano took me by the palazzo where Casanova used to live, and told me about some of the ancient families of Venice. Towards the end of our time, Sebastiano took the gondola out onto the Grand Canal for a journey right under the Rialto Bridge.
It was a wonderful 40 minutes and I was very happy to pay the €80 (and a tip!). Although I had a wonderful time, I really do urge you to take my advice and find a gondolier who loves what he does. During my journey I saw more than a few gondoliers who had headphones in, listening to music as they steered tourists around or, even worse, were chatting away on their mobile phones during a ride. Do yourself a favour and take the time to find the right gondolier for you, and I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Indulge your cultured side:
*Interpreti Veneziani – Chisea san Vidal, San Marco
If you’re into classical music, there are some fantastic opportunities to enjoy it in Venice. Aficianados beware, though, as there are at least a dozen companies touting classical concertos by poorly trained musicians in embarrassingly inaccurate historical dress (cringe). I was recommended to Interpreti Veneziani by a friend. Although this is a widely known and well advertised concert, the musicians are unbelievably talented and not made up like Eighteenth-century tarts. The venue, the church of san Vidal, provides a wonderful atmosphere for the programme which changes according to the day of the week. I was lucky enough to experience Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on the evening I attended, alongside some Handel and Bazzini. Book directly through their website for the best rates and for a full listing of each night’s programme – handy if you’re after something by a specific composer.
*‘Secret Itineraries’ tour at the Doge’s Palace – book here
The Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale) is on the top of many tourist’s lists while in Venice, and it’s a beauty. If you want to experience the palace properly, I’d recommend going on this tour that gives you so more more insight into the Venice of old than simply walking around by yourself. I’ll hold myself back from giving you a lecture on Venetian politics as this entry is already becoming a novel, but the Doge was the head of the Venetian State and these were his headquarters. There was some bat crazy shit going on throughout the Venetian Republic, and they had some positively horrifying bodies of government like the Council of Ten (you don’t want to meet them) and the Council of Three (if you’ve met them, you’re probably going to die) who were responsible for the security of the Republic. They were known for their authority, secrecy, and knack for getting people to confess (ahem, torture).
A typical visit to the Doge’s Palace includes all of the grand state rooms, but if you book the ‘secret itineraries’ tour online in advance, you’ll get an extra 90 minute tour of all of the “back rooms” of the Republic. Secret archives, wards, offices, torture chambers, and even Casanova’s prison cell and the story of how he escaped. It’s truly incredible! The tours are run in various languages by exceptionally intelligent members of staff.
Inside the chamber of the Council of Three.
There’s some brilliant art and architecture going on in this wing of the palace that you wouldn’t normally get to see, and at €20 (which includes the standard entry to the palace) it’s not at all expensive. Before or after your tour, visit the sumptuous reception halls and meeting rooms with some of the most incredible frescoes you’ll ever see. When you’re inside the Hall of the Great Council, look around at the portraits of every Doge along the top of the wall. You’ll spot something odd when you get about halfway through – a big blackout over one of the portraits. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, so ask a member of staff about the tale of Marino Faliero.
Inside the Hall of the Great Council.
Explore the lagoon:
If you’ve got more than a few days in Venice, consider getting out for a day and exploring the other islands dotted along the lagoon. All of them are easily reachable by public transport on the vaporetto lines. Here’s a little guide:
Murano: The closest island to Venice. You can reach Murano in about 10 minutes by taking the vaporetto from Fondamente Nove (in the Cannaregio sestiere). Murano is famous for its production of hand-blown glass, but be advised that about 80% of the glass being sold on Murano is imported from China. Real Murano glass is very expensive, very rare, and very difficult to produce. You will rarely find little trinkets made of real Murano glass, but you will find beautifully intricate wine goblets and chandeliers. Unless you’ve got a boat-load of euros to spend on an authentic item, use your money to get a nice lunch at one of Murano’s lovely cafes rather than supporting a souvenir shop by purchasing a false Murano glass item that devalues the real craft.
Note: Don’t accept a “free ride” to Murano by any hotels or tourist agencies. You’ll get your free ride alright, but you’ll also get pressured to purchase poor quality glass that isn’t even from Murano. The vaporetto to Murano is cheap, do it yourself and you’ll get to visit and shop on your own schedule.
Burano: A lovely island, and a photographer’s dream. Burano is about 45 minutes from Venice, and can be reached from Murano in just over 30 minutes if you’re island hopping. It’s known for the rainbow of brightly coloured houses that line its canals, and also for its history of lace-making. Unfortunately, as with the glass on Murano, much of the lace on Burano is machine produced lace that’s been shipped in from other countries and has nothing to do with the history of the ladies on Burano who sit and painstakingly hand-weave stunning pieces of lace. By a stroke of luck, I managed to find a little shop on Burano that sold some beautiful, and authentic, Burano lace. An elderly lady sat in the side of the shop, knitting away while I browsed the pieces of vintage and contemporary lace. As expected, real Burano lace is very expensive, so I settled on a teeny tiny little doily as it was all I could afford.
Burano also has some lovely restaurants which serve exceptional seafood. This should be wildly obvious considering you’re on an island, but I feel inclined to point it out regardless as I saw a lot of tourists eating pizza (maybe they don’t like seafood?). The easy choice here is fritto misto, a selection of gently fried seafood and vegetables such as prawns, squid, and courgette. It’s basically the most badass calamari you’ll ever have.
Gelato in Burano on a sunny day.
Torcello: Torcello is just next-door to Burano. Every fifteen minutes from Burano, you can take a five minute shuttle boat over to this incredible medieval island. There’s not much on Torcello, but that’s the beauty of it. The main attraction is the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, which has got some unbelievably well preserved 11th and 12th century mosaics. Also on Torcello? A shit ton of cats. They’re protected and looked after by a organisation called Dingo which runs various cat sanctuaries throughout the lagoon (there’s a huge one on Lido). Anyone who knows me knows how much I love cats, so I spent a lot of time on Torcello chatting to some locals around the streets and sitting with some of the cats in the sunshine. They’re feral, but they’re friendly with people and they’re all looked after well so it’s not unsafe to give them a bit of attention.
Dining and Drinking:
Don’t miss out on a Venetian bar crawl during your stay. Click here for my definitive guide on cicchetti (Venetian tapas), wine, and the famed spritz.
Spent all your money on beautiful handmade Venetian wares? Well done you, but don’t starve. Click here for some of my favourite cheap eats in Venice.